Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Real Girl

With the 'Big Thaw' underway, her rigidness melted with it. As her flesh defrosted, her limbs became more flexible. Her face more 'English Rose', than as white as snow, and her button nose no longer an icicle. She was a 'real girl' again. A girl who could rub noses in an Eskimo kiss, flutter her eyes like the wings of butterflies, and splash puddles in her wellies.
As the temperatures crept up, the rain came and the ice turned into floods of water. The Real Girl grew bolder. She used her limbs to run around and find the biggest pool to wade in. In her back garden, a new lake had formed, which was by far the largest; its muddy waters flowed from the weeping willow to the patio. Her red mackintosh flapped as her Mum tucked her trousers into her socks and helped her pull on her matching boots. Zipped into her rainproof coat, the hood is flipped over her head and its toggles fastened under her chin too tightly.
Be careful.” Her Mum says and gives her a hug.
You're squashing me!” She bites back. She dislikes these public displays of sentimentality.
Her Mum makes a worried frown, sighs, and walks through the back door into the utility room. From the patio, the Real Girl surveys the lake like a hardy fisherman and doesn't flinch when she hears the squelch of her Dad's boots coming to join her.
Aye, aye Captain.” He says in his ol'-sea-dog-with-a-pipe-in-his-mouth dialect, “What are we thinking?”
The Real Girl fixes him with a steely stare and decisively answers, “We must build an Ark like Noah's, but on a smaller scale and with a sail.”
But what'll we use Captain?” Her Dad, now employed in the role of first-mate, stutters.
She points to a pile of old floorboards, which had been ripped from the house and forgotten about, “Those wooden planks and a bed-sheet of course.”
They both jump to the job immediately. The Real Girl Captain shouting commands at First Mate Dad as he does all the work. The morning rings with the sounds of sawing and hammering, and only one break is allowed to share a flask of tea and a Kit-Kat. Finally, First Mate Dad steps back, wipes the sweat from his brow, and gazes at his work. The Real Girl Captain grins as she climbs aboard with her toy parrot and trusty sea-dog, “Well, what are we waiting for? Let's set sail!”
First Mate Dad pushes her off, before wading in and clambering on to hoist the sail. The Real Girl Captain positions herself at the helm with both hands on the striped rubber ring. That day and the next they have many adventures together: they discover unknown islands and battle pirates for treasure, before the Ark runs aground on the earth's bed, and has to be dismantled.
The direction of the wind was changing...
Spring came and the Real Girl wore cotton frocks and danced in her socks, and held plastic tea parties. In the Summer months, she ran barefoot through sprinklers, and in Autumn made rich, mud pies. But as Winter approached, she began to freeze again. Her limbs grew stiff as she turned to ice once more. She mourned as she knew the day would come when she would not thaw. As more and more parents said it was too dangerous to play she would not become a 'real girl'. Her frozen statue would stand to remind people not to steal childhood innocence.

Thursday, 24 January 2013


Heather, what will you have?”
Nothing, thanks Nan.”
How will you have it?”
On a plate.”
A silly, private family joke bellowed back and forth; the answers passed from room to room. She said, “Nothing, thanks Nan”, and so on. Each family member now a messenger, my given responses echoing. The lengthy pause as the preparations get underway in the kitchen. The clatter of cups and saucers. The whistle and steam as the kettle is boiled and the teapot warmed. Milk poured into a small serving jug and white sugar cubes topped up in their container. Tins and packets opened and cake cut into Nan-sized slices: not delicate and yet not manly. The tea stewing in its pot and everything set out on rectangular trays to be carried through to the sitting room, where we've adjourned after our leisurely walk to the sea front. As this goes on, the adults perch in cosy seats and continue their idle chatter. In this languid manner, they pull side tables out in readiness for the refreshments. The children, (my cousins and I), lounge semi-listening or absorbed in our own talk or mischief. Nan's imminent entrance is given away by her steady tread on the carpet. She walks in balancing a tray and presides over the service. Tea poured and milk added according to the recipient's preference; a brief hesitation in proceedings each time with the line: “One sugar lump or two?” It was almost a crime to refuse. The teacup was then passed around until it was in the hands of the drinker, while another female relative portions up biscuits and cake on individual plates as requested. A digestive, a rich tea, an all-butter finger, or a slice of home-made Madeira. There would eventually be ample opportunity to pinch a couple of biscuits or another piece of cake from the larger plate circling the room.
The earlier joke, if I had refused, at some break in this ceremony would be followed through to its conclusion. Nan would approach and present to me, with a curtsey, a piece of empty crockery. A china plate which would be bare except for the solitary scratched and faded flower. My acceptance gesture would be, of course, required: a roll of my eyes, a big sigh, and an exaggerated grimace. I'm not really sure when or why this joke started, but under this roof it persisted. I think it was when I reached that 'Kevin' stage, when I grew bored of being asked if I wanted tea and what I would have with it. The joke must have developed from this teen attitude and the oddity of it, as it played out, has stuck in my memory.
Now I've matured, I firmly believe that my Nan's obstinacy about eating with tea runs in the family, perhaps even as far back to unconfirmed rumours of Jewish ancestry. Food rationing and sibling hand-me-downs also figures somewhere in her reasoning. As a hostess, she was relentless in her offer of food. The question was never, “Would you like anything?” It was always, “What will you have?” This stipulation implied you must never turn down the offer of food, you must have something! Serving an empty plate, as far as my Nan was concerned, was better than nothing. This question has now been passed down the female line and my mother asks it with the same entrenched opinion: You can't possibly enjoy a cup of tea without having something to go with it!

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Narrator

My mother's battered old copy of 'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier sits in my lap. It's a UK Penguin edition which originally sold for 30p, and I'm halfway through its musty, yellow pages. A story of a young girl who marries the widowed Maxim de Winter and finds herself having to get to grips with Manderley, his Cornish estate, and the ghost of its former mistress, the beautiful Rebecca. Reading it for the first time, it's captivating me. I've always been told “It's your sort of book”, but although they were right, I didn't like to be told; I had to choose to read it myself. These five words echo in my head as I progress through the chapters. What had they meant? And why were they so certain? I'm a little taken aback by their accuracy; that they know me so well. What gave me away? Was it my fondness for remnants from bygone eras? For crumbling great houses and life below stairs? Perhaps people thought, 'She belongs to a National Trust property', like a figurine that could be dusted and polished, and kept on display in the drawing room. Or perhaps they thought, 'She'd make a fine housekeeper in a black dress with a belt of keys fastened around her.' That must be it, but I'm also struck by the closeness I feel to the heroine. The nameless narrator. It's natural to compare yourself to the central character, but like the ghostly presence of Rebecca, this feels almost sinister.
From chapter two I knew the narrator was out of her depth. She wasn't cut out as a companion to Mrs Van Hooper or as Maxim de Winter's new wife. She was too inexperienced and sensitive to criticism. Her life handicapped by her awkwardness and her intense desire to please. I can relate to that, as I too have trailed in the wake of those I judged to be superior 'like a shy, uneasy colt.' I've imagined scenarios, conversations, and other people's thoughts in my head. But unlike the narrator who is looking back, I wonder if this diffidence will ever leave me. Uncertainty plagues me as it does in her words and voice. Should she try to imprint her habits on the house or take over the first Mrs de Winter's? Use the library instead of the morning room; light fires and order tea at unspecified hours. She thinks of it, but refrains from acting on it, remaining passive. She can't assert herself over the staff or the dead Mrs de Winter. We share the same unspoken thoughts: What exactly is my role? Where do I fit in this? What belongs to me? She doesn't own her Christian, maiden or her married name. Mrs Danvers treats her like an intrusive guest, and her husband as if she were a child. She compares herself unfavourably to the former mistress of Manderley. Her devil is the spirit of Rebecca, while mine is society.
The turning point for the narrator is not the twist, but the personal revelations that come from it. In piecing the truth together, she realises what she believed was imaginary. The Rebecca that loomed in her constant thoughts was an illusion. She wonders how many other people, have 'built up a great distorted wall in front of them.' I'm one of them. Like her, I find it hard to break out from my 'web of shyness and reserve,' and I recognise this, as society does, as a weakness. I too have 'built up false pictures in my mind and sat before them.' I've made comparisons, perceiving others as perfect, clever and capable. It turns out this is society's illness, not mine to bear alone.
As I read on, I continually returned to the novel's beginning because this is the genuine ending. Here, the narrator speaks with new-found confidence and maturity. The shadows have dispersed; the narrator has won, not Rebecca.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

From The Wardrobe

The wardrobe was the perfect office space as well as the means of escape: time out. Doors opened wide, coats and jumpers pushed carelessly to one side; laptop set up with a drawer pulled out from the unit underneath as a balancing ledge for the keyboard. Wicker chair pulled up: are we sitting awkwardly? Yes, let's go! My fingers tap-tapping like a trained pianist's and racing ahead of me. Strange, the wardrobe was not impeding my creativity; staring at its solid back was, in fact, allowing it to flow.
Most afternoons during my extended Christmas holidays, I found myself here, camped out in the wardrobe. The open doors shielding me from noise and interruptions. My parents found it perfectly normal. What does that say about me or our family?! I've always liked squashing myself into unsuitable spaces. Occasionally Mum would pop her head in and each time I'd request green tea. Drinking cup after cup whilst my fingers tapped on the keyboard or my eyes read what I typed on the screen.
C.S. Lewis wrote: 'It's very foolish to shut one-self into any wardrobe.' But Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy didn't listen, so neither would I. The wardrobe was my portal: my entryway into a world of words, flashbacks and experiences. I confess in my Narnia I did not see tree branches covered with snow or an old-fashioned lamp post, but I was able to convey my thoughts for a short window. I recollected fragments of memories as if I was catching butterflies and managing to capture some of them on the page. I don't know how anyone writes surrounded by cafe culture: the brewing of coffee and chatter. Empty coats and jumpers seemed to suit my quieter nature.
As the day turned into evening, this working space once again became an ordinary wardrobe. I'd pull the clothing across, shut the drawer, close its wooden doors, and think no more about it. Perhaps this temporary custom was foolish, but one day I might put my success down to the back of a wardrobe.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Box

How was your Christmas and New Year? This question pops into conversation with increasing regularity. I've asked others and it's been asked of me. The responses are fairly standard. It was good; I spent it with family; the kids enjoyed it etc. We all know what to reply without boring people. A brief sentence that supplies a bit of detail, but not too much. Each year, I find it hard to vocalise these phrases. What would I say if I felt it was inoffensive to do so? One word would be exclaimed with a wide grin and a girly squeal: “Boxy!”
What's on the box is more important to me than food or family,(sorry Mum, Dad & Monty), so that when I get my hands on a Christmas TV Guide, I can barely contain myself. I lean over and study it at a desk as a student does a textbook. From a pencil case, I pick a highlighter and hover its fluorescent tip over each day's listed schedule. I mark the shows I want to watch, circle the repeats and calculate if Plus One will work in my agenda. While this is being done, I ooh, aah, and as my excitement builds, enthusiastically clap. Thank God, the next door flat is largely empty!
For two hours, I sit hunched over this bumper issue; the light outside fading and my tea tepid, but with each fresh page, I still emit a squeal. Gasp! Downton Abbey Christmas Special!! Circle it! Oh My God, they're showing the animation Up! My hands involuntarily make small rapid claps. “Stop it!!” I reprimand them. How will I contain myself until the holidays? As my pen swoops over the final page, I'm slumping forward and continuously yawning. I've had too much telly rush – I've overdosed on festive previews of drama, cartoons, and comedy. I end the ritual by crawling on my knees up to the turned-off TV and hugging it. Maggie Simpson borrowed that move from me – I did it first!
A psychologist might ask, 'When did this start?' And I'd say “With my family.” In black and white and colour. In analogue and digital. With four channels and now freeview. With VHS and DVD. The television is the heart of the home. We ate around it, conversed over it, and argued about it; we still do. The models have changed, but its place in the home has not; there it majestically sits in the corner, almost on par with the size of the furniture. Older models had more character – encased in wood with twiddly knobs and showing grainy pictures. The short walk to and fro, to and fro, to change the channel. TV dinners, steaming plates of food on trays on laps, until I, as a child, insisted we ate at a table. With remotes, this new eating habit got easier. The different programmes the different households of the extended family tuned into: snooker, afternoon musicals, soaps and sitcoms. The different routines: the TV switched on at certain times and not before. Gathered around its flickering screen, we'd laugh, cheer, shout, cry, get scared and hide behind sofas.
From these family habits, I formed my own relationship. A close-knit bond to a box powered by satellites, cables and electricity. I ration its use like a sweet to reward me. At Christmas these rewards just get bigger. My adult patience pays off so I can watch long awaited films like a child: completely lost in the plot and the pictures moving in front of me. During the festive holidays, there's only one question that's asked with any religiosity: What's on?